Hundreds of comments were posted Monday and Tuesday with many chastising a decision to remove a nativity scene that had been placed on the courthouse lawn.
Volunteers placed the scene steps from one of the entrances to the Appanoose County Courthouse in mid-November, with permission. On Monday, less than three weeks later, volunteers were moving the scene from government property. It was moved after officials determined a complaint had merit and that the city could, in fact, face legal jeopardy if the display remained.
The land is owned by the city of Centerville. A council-approved policy gave city administrator Jason Fraser the right to approve or deny permit requests to use the land, he said by phone Tuesday.
Additionally, for Christmas time, the city delegates decorating responsibilities for the courthouse area to the Centerville-Rathbun Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, but Fraser said he gave his verbal permission for the nativity scene to be included in that.
However, Fraser said, the chamber’s normal decorating of the courthouse lawn had been lessened this year and no longer takes up as much of the roughly 2-acre lawn.
Past precedent, he said, from the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed nativity scenes when they are part of a larger group of decorations that include secular items, like Christmas trees, reindeer, lights, etc. With the change in decoration area, Fraser said the nativity scene then stood alone.
The decision to remove the scene and place it where it currently stands at the intersection of Main and Maple Streets was to attempt to resolve the issue without a legal conflict. Instead, the dispute has become personal.
“I feel like there are a lot of personal attacks that go with that,” Fraser said. “When really what the decision was, was trying to be a collaborative decision making sure everybody could have what they wanted ultimately in a way that’s not going to cause conflicts. There’s no issue of a lawsuit from a group saying that we’re supporting the nativity now, because it’s moved onto private property.”
Fraser said he first notified the Chamber of the need to remove the display, and that the chamber then contacted those involved in the project. The conversation, he said, began before Thanksgiving. The major hurdle was a concern that there would not be volunteers available, but Fraser said he was able to help round up enough to move the scene. To alleviate concerns over security, Fraser said he purchased a security camera with his own funds.
“We found an alternative public property place that was still prominent so that the nativity scene would still be up and we’d not be erasing it,” Fraser said.
Fraser said the original concern was raised by councilmember Jay Dillard, who brought concerns from other citizens concerning the legality of the display and the process that led to it.
Reached Tuesday by phone, Dillard said, “as a councilman, I had a responsibility and a duty to speak with Jason regarding those citizens’ concerns about the nativity scene and the legality on if it was done correctly.”
He referred other questions to Fraser, who he said handles media relations on behalf of the city. The identities of the citizens who voiced concerns to Dillard were not released or available. Fraser said the feeling was if something wasn’t done that a lawsuit would be the group’s next step.
The outrage has largely been captured on one post from the Solid Rock Church of God’s Facebook page, which tallied more than 700 comments in less than 18 hours.
The original post signed by the church’s pastor, Tony Angran, said that he was “appalled that the very reason for the season be taken out of the very heart of this city and moved elsewhere. And that we as citizens of this community sit back and do nothing.”
In late 2018 into early 2019, local community members and churches raised thousands to purchase a set of figurines that portrayed the scene of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Among those weighing in on the post was councilmember Ron Creagan, who told the nativity scene’s supporters to “get a petition started to put it back on [the] courthouse lawn. I’ll support it. Let a court of law tell us we can’t do it.”
With only a few exceptions, comments on the post were supportive of the display on the courthouse lawn.
One resident wrote, “How dare this town to be manipulated into doing something like this.” Another wrote, “Just take the person that got offended and move them.”
There were some dissenters, however. One was critical of the uproar, writing, “I wish people would get this excited about the lack of jobs or options of fun safe things to do for young people in Centerville.” Another asked, “Why is your religion so much more important than anyone else’s?”
While hundreds wrote to support the scene’s placement on the courthouse lawn, the display remains highly visible. It currently stands alongside Highway 2 near the large “Centerville” public art display. One citizen said this placement was better, in their mind.
“[It] will be visible by more people where it is now,” the comment read. “It’s by the Centerville sign, so to me, it says the town of Centerville supports the nativity scene.”
The topic of the nativity scene will be an agenda item for the Centerville City Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 16. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at Centerville City Hall.
Other nearby cities have battled similar issues. In 2012, the city of Oskaloosa received blowback on a nativity scene placed on their square, according to reporting by the online news outlet Oskaloosa News. Ultimately, city officials there determined to restore the nativity scene after removing it, but added secular symbols to the area citing the “three reindeer rule” developed out of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lynch v. Donnelly.
The 5-4 ruling found that a town’s display on government property of a nativity scene, alongside a Christmas tree, Santa Claus house and a banner reading “Season’s Greetings” did not violate the first amendment rights protecting freedom of religion. The opinion ruled the display had “legitimate secular purposes” and that the nativity scene “depicts the historical origins” of Christmas and thus had a secular purpose.
In a 1984 split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, the court developed a test to determine if a display is akin to a government body taking a position on religion and violating the first amendment. Like the reindeer case, the court ruled a display showcasing only a nativity scene endorsed the Christian religion. However, a display showcasing secular symbols alongside did not explicitly endorse a religion.